My introduction to RPGs included lots of adversarial GMing and challenges to the players to cleverly navigate the fiction. Like many other players in my early groups, I got into the habit of treating every new piece of fiction introduced by the GM as a potential threat. There was theorizing and measuring and strategizing galore, because these threats were serious! Make a wrong move, and my precious character might be killed, or imprisoned, or level-drained, or might lose my favorite magic items! The way we played, the point of playing was pretty much to avoid those fates -- to stay alive long enough to prosper and become badass enough to fight the coolest beasties in the Monster Manual. Getting killed or jailed or robbed felt like losing, and so we all tried to win instead. Given that my only tool (well, besides criticizing the GM) was my character, there was an exact correspondence in adversity -- if my character's in trouble, I'm in trouble. If they're faced with loss, I dread that loss and do everything I can to avoid it. If they've got a problem, yo, I'll solve it. That's what I'm here to do, to sweat the adversity.
My foray into indie RPGs 15 years later introduced me to an extremely different formula. Playing Primetime Adventures at my first convention, I saw the players around me gleefully leading their characters into peril. They relished the tight spots while they were happening. This was a bit of a shock! I'd only relished tight spots after the fact, in celebration of victory, or in contemplation of avenging loss. "Now my character has this juicy choice to make" was a concept I quickly bought into over the course of 3 hours, seeing how everyone at the table perked up and took notice at those moments, despite the fact that dismemberment wasn't on the line, and no one was losing too much sweat in trying to avoid it even if it was.
Since then, I've played many sessions of many games with an attitude of "embrace character trouble". It turns out that metagame resources, authority beyond what my character does, peril that doesn't involve losing life or levels, and one-shot games with characters I'll never play again, are all pretty common occurrences in the circles I've played in. My earlier habit of "fear the GM's threats and fight like hell to avoid/overcome them" is long since dead, with "embrace character trouble" just as natural to me at this point.
This is where it gets interesting. Instead of having one default attitude to take into all RPGs, I've wound up with this huge bag of different approaches informed by different experiences, so that when I see a new game, I'm playing mix-and-match. Sometimes consciously, sometimes not. When my character is going to unseal that vault, and I hear the guards' footsteps in the distance, how will I respond?
"Oh crap, if they show up they might imprison me, or kill me if I resist! Can't have that! Must run! Must hide! Or can I trick them somehow?!"
"Oh cool, if they show up then I'll get to deal with this quandary! Maybe I'll wind up scarred by 20 years in prison, or maybe I'll recruit them as henchman for my upcoming coup! Neato!"
Until I see the new game's feedback and rewards and consequences in action, I'm just guessing at what will be most fun, right now, with the group I'm playing with. If the game doesn't push us in a particular direction, we'll wind up doing what comes naturally, based on prior experience and how we play together. When I try out a new game, I hope that it does provide such a push -- otherwise, I'd be more likely to play a game I already know instead. However, having become aware of my options, at this point only the strongest pushes register. If I'm with an "embrace trouble" group in an "embrace trouble" mood, encouraging or allowing me to sweat adversity simply isn't enough. The adversity needs teeth, for real, non-negotiably, in a way that no player can dodge without cheating. Similarly, if my group is all geared up to sweat adversity, we're not going to stop strategizing and simply embrace trouble unless the game truly rewards us for playing that way.
So, what do you all think? Have you experienced this freedom to process RPG "adversity" however you like? If so, is it a good thing, a problem, or both? Do you intuit how a game "wants" you to play it? Do you have enough game options that distinguish themselves via powerful incentives, and do you continue to find more? Or do they all blend together to the point where you don't care about stakes and resolution outcomes, and you find the fun in other aspects of a game?